Eavesdropping on the Police

Respectfully submitted by Lawrence Rafferty (rafflaw)–Guest Blogger

Here in Illinois it is currently illegal for citizens to audio tape record public officials while they are doing their public duty, even in public.  “Illinois’ eavesdropping ban was extended in 1994 to include open and obvious audio recording, even if it takes place on a public street where no expectation of privacy exists and in a volume audible to the “unassisted human ear.” ‘  Chicago Tribune   When I first heard of this law, I was at first shocked and then my shock turned to anger.  The police can make recordings of citizens out in public while they are in the midst of a traffic stop or even when one is exercising their First Amendment rights on the streets of Chicago.  But, private citizens are not allowed to record those same police officers when they abuse the public or take liberties with constitutional guarantees.

The good news is that the ACLU here in Illinois is fighting this theft of our civil rights and the case is currently pending in the 7th Circuit.  ” The American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois today asked a federal appellate court to block future prosecutions of the ACLU and its staff members for recording police officers performing their public duties in a public space as a violation of the First Amendment. The oral argument on Tuesday morning is the latest action in an ACLU lawsuit filed in federal court in August of 2010. The ACLU of Illinois is defending its program monitoring police conduct and practices on the streets of Chicago.”  ACLU

Why is the ACLU making a Federal case out of a street artist’s arrest?  The easy answer is that if no one is allowed to audio record police officers on the street, how will the citizens of Illinois and the other states who have similar laws, be able to monitor the actions of over zealous police officers who go beyond the law?  The ACLU routinely monitors demonstrations to make sure that the police are not abusing the protestors and violating their constitutional rights.  This legislation would prevent the ACLU and citizens from being able to prove that the police are breaking the law. It is not surprising that the police union supports this restrictive law that protects police criminality.  “Officials with the Fraternal Order of Police in Chicago have said the union supports the law because it prevents people from making baseless accusations against officers by recording them and then releasing snippets that don’t reveal the full context of the incident.”  Tribune

Let me see if I understand the argument put forward by the Fraternal Order of Police (FOP).  If citizens are allowed to record what police officers are saying then the citizens will be able to take conversations out of context and put the officers in a bad light.  Interesting claim, but if the police are already recording us on their video cameras in the squad cars and with the many street cameras set up all around the City of Chicago, how are citizens going to be able to get away with the actions claimed by the FOP?  The answer is that they won’t.  The ban on recordings prevents the truth being told on how officers are treating citizens on the streets.

The good news is that the ACLU suit is backed by many media organizations and there is even a new law working its way through the State House in Springfield that would allow citizens to audio record police officers on any street in Illinois.  House Bill 3944   This battle is not just a concern for those of us who live in Illinois.  If you are a citizen of Maryland or Massachusetts, you are also laboring under similar laws that prevent you from making audio recordings of police officers in the line of duty.  Some may think that the ACLU is making something out of nothing.  If you agree with that line of thinking, at which point do you say that the police and the State have too much control over our right to monitor police activities in public? Should we just sit back and allow the police to be able to say and do anything to us in the streets?  Even if that action or those words prevent us from exercising our First Amendment rights?

What if a Federal agent was disrupting a legal demonstration and was recording what the demonstrators were saying and doing?  Shouldn’t the demonstrators have the right to record just how the government is infringing on their rights?  My Mom also used to tell me what is good for the goose is good for the gander.   Maybe the State of Illinois and the City of Chicago should also be required to follow that logic.  What is your take on this subject?  Should the State have a right to stop citizens from monitoring State actions?

ACLU vs. Alvarez Complaint

Additional ACLU vs. Alvarez court filings

29 thoughts on “Eavesdropping on the Police”

  1. I think not many people take notice of what their state legislators are doing (myself included) so they pass laws, such as this, with impunity.

  2. A happy day it will be when direct real-time streaming into the cloud will eliminate “recording” at the source.

  3. I knew Harvey Grossman’s dog Hugo many years ago. Harvey is the lead counsel on this lawsuit in Chi-town. Give em hell Harvey.

  4. The law will no doubt be found unconstitutional.
    Therefore I feel that when I advocate disregarding this law, I am not advocating immanent lawless action, and if I am, then the test is not adequate.
    As Holmes said in 1919 in Abrams, Congress (and by extension, the states) certainly cannot forbid all effort to change the mind of the country.

  5. Great article, rafflaw…

    As was shown to be the case in East Haven, CT, “a picture’s worth a thousand words”… and with regard to audio.. well, nothing like getting it from the horse’s mouth…

    “If citizens are allowed to record what police officers are saying then the citizens will be able to take conversations out of context and put the officers in a bad light.” -FOP statement

    Well, again, it was the audio that helped show that one of the East Haven police officers was lying… So I say, tape away… video, audio….. all of it. Let’s get this country turned around.

  6. It’s very obvious to me. We the people have our natural rights and our government and police are to protect or rights. Governments are working for the people; we don’t work for the government or police.

  7. “Oops…wanna delete the above comment…I did not mean it the way it came out…” -AY

    “wanna delete the above comment”…or take back what I just said… Story of my life… 🙂 (A lot of us feel your pain…)

  8. Oops…wanna delete the above comment…I did not mean it the way it came out…

  9. raff,

    I think you state laws suck’s worse than Cain….giving it to the Newt…It’s just a matter of time before he gets a head…

  10. Or this…

    Chicopee magistrate Joanne McCarthy refuses to issue wiretapping charge against Tyrisha Greene in Melvin Jones beating case

    CHICOPEE – A Springfield police officer was denied a criminal complaint against a woman who videotaped him standing by as a colleague allegedly brutally beat a black motorist with a flashlight during a traffic stop in 2009.
    Tyrisha Greene, 29, of Springfield, was summonsed to Chicopee District Court Wednesday for a hearing to explore whether an illegal wiretapping charge against her was warranted – at officer Michael Sedergren’s request.
    Sedergren filed an application for a criminal charge against Greene for videotaping the Nov. 27, 2009, alleged beating of Melvin Jones III, through her window on Rifle Street.

    State law prevents secret audiotaping. However, there must be an expectation of privacy to fall within the law, according to Hampden District Attorney Mark G. Mastroianni.

    Assistant Clerk Magistrate Joanne M. McCarthy rejected the application after a short closed-door hearing. The Republican unsuccessfully petitioned to open the hearing to the public. McCarthy denied the petition based on Sedergren’s objection, according to those present.


  11. This is why I will have my dual citizenship completed this year. Our country has changed remarkably since 1999, and not the better.

  12. “Here in Illinois it is currently illegal for citizens to audio tape record public officials while they are doing their public duty, even in public.”

    Is it illegal to make a digital audio recording instead of a taped recording? Digital is what is on phones, iPods, cameras, etc., while tape requires magnetic media, like cassettes or reel-to-reel.

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